by Dennis Crouch
Downstream users have been increasingly subject to patent infringement lawsuits even when the product manufacturer would seemingly have been a more natural and focused target. Many assign nefarious intent to these downstream user lawsuits, but it turns out there is a good faith economic reason why the lawsuits make sense for a patentee. The basic insight here is that lawsuits against parties further downstream in the market chain allow the patentee to capture a portion of the economic consumer surplus that is not available at manufacturer-level lawsuits.
A U.S. patent provides its owner with the right to exclude others from making, using, selling offering-to-sell, importing or exporting the patented invention. 35 U.S.C. § 271. The statute is broad enough to allow a patentee to target any point along the supply chain.* However, the rules on exhaustion and multiple recovery prevent a patentee from collecting duplicative royalties at from different points along the supply chain.
In a market economy, consumers typically purchase goods when the prices of those goods are less than what the consumers are willing to pay. Consumer surplus is defined as the difference between that highest price that they would be willing to pay and the price that they actually did pay. Because of pricing difficulties for producers and market competition, almost all goods and services are associated with some consumer surplus. This consumer surplus is a spillover benefit that simply cannot be fully captured by the manufacturer. Each step along a supply chain also typically involves consumer surplus, with the result being that the end-user places a substantially higher value on the good than did the original manufacturer.
This notion of consumer surplus ties back into the patent laws at the point of collecting damages. Under the patent laws, a patentee is due at least “a reasonable royalty for the use made of the invention by the infringer.” And, because downstream users place a higher value on the goods than do upstream manufacturers and distributers, it makes sense that the reasonable royalty award will also be relatively higher.
A typical patent scenario might involve a software developer who made check-processing software that was then sold through a vender to banks around the country. The developer, vender, and banks are all potentially liable for infringement and the patentee wanting to enforce its patent would then need to choose whom to sue for infringement. Here, the banks likely paid the vender significantly less than the actual value they receive from using the software. Similarly, a successful vender would have paid the software developer significantly less than the resale price. These differences in valuation offer fuel for the ‘hypothetical negotiation’ that serves as the fundamental basis for reasonable royalty damages. Simply stated, a party who values the invention more would tend to pay more for use of the invention.
A difficulty with customer-lawsuits is the large number of lawsuits and negotiations. Rather than dealing with a single manufacturer that may result in a single large payout, the patentee is working through dozens or even hundreds or thousands of customers who each pay their bit. In addition, patentees whose preference is to stop infringing use rather than collect royalties will likely prefer to cut focus on the manufacturer level as a better chokepoint.
Now, taking a step back toward reality: It is unlikely that these differences in valuation are driving the current preference for customer lawsuits. Rather, the settlement value of most of the customer lawsuits are driven by the cost-of-defense rather than the merits of the patent at issue or its value to the user. This means that my reasonable royalty calculation from above, even if mathematically correct, is largely irrelevant in the current climate. I should note that there are at least several legitimate criticisms to my analysis and underlying assumptions above, but I’ll save those for a later post.
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* With method-of-use claims, the end users end users are the only likely direct infringers, but even there, the suppliers may be liable for inducement or contributory infringement. (Recent cases tightening the mens rea requirement limit this somewhat).